Lameness in Horses: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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Lameness is one of the most common conditions found in horses. There are many ways a horse can “go lame,” with a variety of associated causes and symptoms. Fortunately, there are some easy treatment options to help soothe your horse’s pain, and overall, the prognosis will be positive. But first, you need to be able to understand what lameness is.

What is lameness in horses?

Lameness in horses is defined as an abnormal stance or gait caused by either a structural or a functional disorder of the horse’s locomotor system. A horse suffering from lameness will be unwilling or unable to stand or move normally.

Though it may seem to be, lameness itself is actually not a disease. It is actually a clinical sign, or manifestation of pain, when restrictions to the horse’s mechanical functions alter his stance or gait. Lameness most often affects a horse’s knees, but also can affect other parts of the leg, such as the muscles, ligaments and more.

Lameness can be classified as weight-bearing or non-weight-bearing. Weight bearing refers to the supporting leg, while non weight bearing refers to the swinging leg. Lameness is most often a weight-bearing condition, but can be both. Weight-bearing lameness can be observed as the horse reduces the amount of force, or weight, he applies to the weight bearing limb.

What causes lameness in horses?

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There is a multitude of causes of horse lameness, with several factors involved. Here is an extended, but surely incomplete list of different causes of lameness, with brief descriptions.

Sprains and Strains

Sprains and strains are common lower-limb injuries in horses — especially competition and performance horses. These injuries are typically the result of overloading or over-stretching, but can also be caused by a direct blow.

Sprains and strains most often damage a horse’s tendons and ligaments. Horses have several important tendons and ligaments in their lower legs., running from their knees to their feet. Those that are most prominent and prone to injury include the superficial digital flexor tendon, the deep digital flexor tendon, and the suspensory ligament.

These injuries are most often seen during athletic competitions, such as when racing or jumping.

Fractures

Fractures are more severe than strains and sprains, and are usually the result of accidents like falls. Horses are also susceptible to compression fractures, which are caused by high torque forces placed on their limbs.

Fractures can be classified as open or closed, with open fractures easily identifiable as a bone breaking through the skin. Closed fractures can be as little as a chip to the bone, and will only be observable if there is visible lameness, pain, or swelling.

Not too long ago, fractures actually meant retirement or even euthanasia for the horse, but orthopedic advancements have made it so this is no longer a death sentence.

Other injuries to the musculoskeletal system

Tendon injuries are actually quite common in horses and can cause lameness. Horses can often lacerate or rupture tendons in their legs and feet. This can be the result of a deep cut, a fall, a kick from another horse, or damage caused by running into or kicking a solid, stationary object.

There is also a condition called tenosynovitis, which is a sudden building of fluid within the sheath of the tendon. This can take several forms depending on the location of the trauma and can be identified by the accompanying pain, heat, and lameness. If the injury were to become infected, it would be called septic tenosynovitis, which would cause pus and more severe pain and lameness.

Bursitis and Septic Bursitis

Bursa sacs secrete lubricating fluid to a horse’s joints and act as cushions. Bursitis occurs when there is trauma to a bursa sac, which will cause it to fill with fluid. Bursitis can occur in any of a horse’s joints, but is most commonly seen in shoulders, hips, hocks, elbow and knees. The filled sacs will cause easily noticeable swelling to the affected area. In septic bursitis, the sac becomes infected with bacteria or even fungus. Immediate treatment will be required to drain the sac and clean the area.

Degenerative Diseases

Normally, a horse’s body will repair damage to its joints after normal wear and tear. However, excessive wear seen in athletic horses can often overwhelm the repair process, causing Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD), or arthritis. Arthritis most often occurs in older horse athletes, but can happen in younger horses as well. The erosion of cartilage can progress to the point that the joint becomes fused.

Navicular disease is a leading cause of front leg lameness. The navicular bone can become damaged through hard stops, twists at high speeds and abrupt changes in direction. Bone spavin is the name that refers specifically to arthritis in the hock joint. Osselets can affect the fetlock joint in one of both of the front feet. Shoulder joint arthritis can emerge from an injury.

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Foot-related lameness

Research shows that most causes of lameness are found in the foot of the horse. This is because domesticated horses have limited opportunities to toughen their feet, leaving them susceptible to a number of problems that can cause lameness.

These include contaminated foot wounds, poor foot conformation from infrequent or inadequate hoof trimming, rocks and other hard objects that bruise the horse’s sole and lead to corns or even keratomas (tumors), thrush, cankers and hoof wall cracks, among others.

Diet-related lameness

Laminitis is a disease that occurs when a horse consumes too much carbohydrates. This leads to the release of lactic acid and endotoxins that can cause swelling in the horse’s feet, which will lead to a recognizable stance.

Another diet-related cause of lameness is exertional myopathy, which happens when a horse that typically has a heavy workload, has a break from activity, but still consumes a high-carb diet. This is also known as azoturia, or tying-up.

Horses are also susceptible to nutritional imbalances caused by feeding practices that contain too much grain, grass, and grain mixes that are low in calcium, phosphorous or protein and even adding too many vitamins and minerals.

Limb deformities

While typically present at birth, some limb deformities can emerge from injury, especially during a horse’s first few weeks of life, when his joints are most sensitive. Foals often have limb crookedness that will straighten out by the time they reach a year old. Horses can develop congenital limb deformities, as well as flexural limb deformities, which occur in the fetlock, coffin or knee joint.

What are the symptoms of lameness in horses?

The signs and symptoms of lameness can be obscure, but are usually fairly easy to recognize. The most common signs include the head nod associated with forelimb lameness, and the sacral rise, or hip hike, that comes with hindlimb lameness. Other signs and symptoms include limping, holding a foot up, an inability to turn smoothly, dragging a toe, not lifting hooves, standing imbalanced and a slower performance.

A lame horse may shift his weight from one foot to the other or stand with his legs out wide. A lame horse’s good leg will bear more weight, which can be identified by that side being lower in the shoulders. Sometimes the horse may even have an abscess in his hoof, with pus draining from the abscess.

What are the treatment options for a lame horse?

The first thing you can do for your horse is to make sure you carefully observe him. Noticing lameness early is important for your horse’s overall health, so make sure you take action if you suspect something is not right. You may be able to identify the cause of your horse’s lameness on your own, but if not, make sure you have your horse checked by your farrier or veterinarian. Together, you will then form an appropriate treatment plan.

Since the cause of lameness is often in the foot, your farrier may be able to make a diagnosis for you and help to correct the condition. A farrier should be familiar with hoof problems that cause lameness, and should be able to provide corrective treatment. Your farrier also should be able to provide preventative care, by ensuring your horse’s hooves are balanced and shoed correctly.

Often, the best thing you can do for your lame horse is to make sure he gets plenty of rest. This will often include box rest. Your horse may need to rest for a few days for something like a simple sprain, but for a more serious injury, it may require weeks or even months. Resting your horse will place less demand on the injured area, whereas continued use would cause more harm, even permanently.

Another treatment option is to spray the horse’s affected leg with cold water for 20 minutes a day. This is an easy treatment that can help reduce swelling. The cold water helps to soothe the heat from the overactive arteries and massages the tissue.

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Prior to hosing, applying Vaseline to the horse’s heel can help prevent the tissue from softening, which can cause cracking and infection. Keep in mind that although easy, hosing is often a 2-person job depending on the temperament of your horse. You’ll need one person to hold the hose and another to steady your horse. Your veterinarian will advise as to how long to continue this form of treatment.

An opposing strategy is hot tubbing. Hot tubbing can be helpful if the cause of lameness is in the lower limbs, such as an abscess or foreign body in the hoof. Spending time in a hot tub can soften the tissues and draw out the infection. This treatment involves soaking the affected hoof in a bucket of hot water (around 100 degrees F) that contains Epsom salts. Make sure to clean the hoof thoroughly before putting it in the bucket. Use a hoof pick if necessary.

For lameness that is caused by something higher up on the leg, hot fomentation can be a good treatment option. This involves soaking a towel in the hot water with Epsom salt and wrapping it around the affected part of the leg. Have a second towel ready and switch it in when the first towel cools. Stick with the same 20 minute intervals as the other treatments.

Poultices can be applied to help reduce swelling and draw out infection. Check with your veterinarian on the appropriate type of poultice and how long they should be applied.

Treating lameness in horses also involves pain management, as your horse may be experiencing quite a bit of discomfort. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) are the most common form used for lameness in horses, and your veterinarian will choose which variety and the dosage. Since NSAIDs can cause side effects, it is always best to not administer any pain killers on your own. Always seek your veterinarian’s opinion.

A horse going lame can be scary, but with proper identification of the cause and the appropriate rest and treatment, your horse should be able to return back to normal.

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